/ Rant

Unspoken Assumptions: Control is (not) a Virtue


It's ok if you find control to be useful, but it's wrong to assume that everyone needs the control that works for you.


I'm one of those people who likes things to be a specific way. I wouldn't describe myself as a control freak, but I certainly appreciate it when things are ordered and consistent. I feel like I'm at my best when I've got everything running smoothly in my life.

That goes several different ways for me. When it's working well I am at the top of the world. I can do anything. When it's not... well... things don't feel so great to me.

That's who I am. That is my experience, and my psychology.

My base orderedness, in my thoughts and actions, in the way I approach a project, is something that is considered admirable by a lot of western culture. And unfortunately, it is often considered virtuous by people in the witching community as well.

This topic intersects with a lot of other subjects, which I am going to try to mostly not talk about. It intersects with the idea that mentally ill individuals just need to "Control themselves" or "Control your thoughts" or "Push through it." It intersects with the way we treat our emotions. "It's not appropriate to feel that way," and "turn it off," and "don't let your feelings control you." It intersects with misogyny and gender essentialism. The idea that women shouldn't be "in charge" or "bossy" and that men should be "dominant" and "aggressive." There are probably so many more, but I can't keep listing them. I'm already getting frustrated thinking about them.

Anyway, I'm going to try not to branch into those intersections too much right now, because what I want to drive towards is something that underlies all the rest of them. We often operate under the assumption that being in control at all times is virtuous.

I don't know precisely where the idea started, but it has grown into what I think is a disorder of our entire culture. I think the idea is rooted in the belief that a person should not have any other person controlling them. I think control is conflated with choice.

Seeing that you have choice and accepting responsibility for your choices may in fact be a virtue. For myself it is. Understanding choice and free will helps me immensely. But choice is not the same thing as control.

There are all sorts of things that I don't have control over. I can't control the weather, or the political landscape, or the business decisions made by my employer. I can't control whether or not my partner leaves me a sink full of dirty dishes or if my cat leaves a hairball next to the bed for me to step in. I can't control how you will react to what I'm writing or whether or not a student of mine does their homework.

There are all sorts of things in my life that I have absolutely no control over. And it seems like the "control is virtue" assumption has no problem with those. The assumption is that "If you can control it, you should be in control of it."

And that seems inoccuous at first, but it's actually kind of gross. It's gross because it encourages people to be in a contest for control of their relationships with each other. It encourages you to stifle, exaggerate, or manufacture your emotional responses. It encourages you to to to value correctness over authenticity.

I could keep going on, but I'm starting to stray a bit far afield. The most troubling aspect of this idea that control is a virtue is actually most relevant in two witchy areas.

Control in relationship with the divine

I wanted to start here by saying that a meaningful, authentic relationship with the divine doesn't come from a place of control. I feel that deep in me, but it's not actually true. It's true for me, but that isn't enough for me to present it as a fact.

The actual truth, is that you can exercise control in your relationship with the divine, just as you can exercise control in your relationship with your family, friends, partners, colleagues, and pets. In all your relationships really.

But there is no intrinsic virtue in exerting that control. You are not a better person because you and your favorite Diety have an agreement where you only get together at certain times. It's fine to have that relationship, but it's not better than a relationship where the Diety is popping up all the time. And vice versa, a relationship where the Diety is always around is not intrinsically any deeper or better than something more structured.

Unfortunately, the idea that control is virtuous is quite common. I recall listening to a friend of mine speak about her tradition, and explaining that they only commune with the Divine during the Sabbats and Esbats. That they make a special place for that because they need to not be interrupted in the rest of their regular life. That sounds reasonable to me, although it's not my way.

But I have often heard and read things like "Oh, I only let the [Divinity Name] come around when I need [X]." And this is said with pride, as though that control is something intrinsically virtuous.

Imagine if you said that about a relative. "Oh, I only talk to cousin Mike when I need legal advice cause he's a lawyer. He tried to call me last week but I didn't answer the phone"

I want to be clear, I don't actually think that it's wrong or bad to have that type of relationship with your cousin or your diety. But it's not something that we should all aspire to. The assumption that being in control of the relationship is an intrinsic good is silly and damaging.

It's damaging because I can't count the number of times I've heard someone scolded because "You shouldn't let that spirit hang around so often." Hell, I've done it. (Sorry sister.) I'm not saying that sometimes it's not appropriate to push back or encourage someone to stand up for themselves (Not Sorry sister). But assuming that because you like to be in control of your relationship with cousin Mike or your diety, that everyone else should exert the same control is really problematic.

Control in the practice of magic

This is actually the one that really gets me going. There are as many ways to practice magic as there are people on this planet. I never hear my less rigorous colleagues scolding someone for being "too controlled" in their practice. But I am constantly hearing people explicitly and implicitly shaming people for not having enough control in their magic.

I've trained in and studied a variety of disciplines. I've had a lot of teachers emphasize the importance of being in control. I've been told that I need to be in control of my emotions, that I need to choose my emotional response to any stimulus. I've been taught that I need to analyze and judge every aspect of self and change it if it is negative. I've seen students display beautiful magic and be crushed by voices that demanded more control.

But I've also listened to the spirits and gods as the wind rustled dry leaves. I've sat with Persephone and Hecate, and learned the importance of surrender. I've let Hephaestus guide my hands to create technology and art. I've lifted my voice without prepared words or any idea of what was needed, and run the course of the working at the behest of spirit. I have sat quietly and cried, and let my emotions roil through me, and let the spirits give and take as they saw fit.

There is value in control. But there is equal value in surrender. Not everybody needs control in their practice, and not everybody needs surrender.

I believe that in teaching, I should also learn. I have a friend who has sometimes been a student of mine. One thing I learned from him is that control can be destructive. Which is something I already knew in some contexts, but had not occurred to me in the context of teaching magic. I learned that every person is different, and that I can't judge where they need control, where they need surrender, where they need compromise, or where they need synchrony. It's my job as a teacher to discover these things as they do, and help them build the things they need to release their magic.

But none of that happens if we begin with the idea that everyone has to be in control.